The always-interesting Fr. Z looks at a question from a reader about a priest who wanders around when he preaches:

For centuries in the pre-Conciliar form of the Roman Rite the preacher is accompanied to the pulpit by the master of ceremonies who stands nearby. The celebrant and preacher are not to be left alone. I am summoning to my imagination’s inward eye what a roving preacher and shadowing m.c. would look like. Stupid, I’m thinking.

I suppose the roving preacher in the Catholic Church comes from the imposition of the man’s own personal quirk on the people of God. This may be in imitation of Protestants, who almost by the very nature of much Protestant preaching need to impose their own personality on the sermon.

In my opinion and experience, the Catholic preacher who does this is a narcissist. He is drawing attention to himself. He imposes himself, overlays himself, for his own needs, on the rite, the Word of God, and the people. His needs first… every else? Forget it.

Are there exceptions? Of course. But not many.

Perhaps we can learn something about the idea of preaching outside the sanctuary, and strutting about like a peacock, from the Church’s rubrics for the sign of peace. This is another occasion in which priests will jack-in-the-box out of the sanctuary where they belong and, sometimes, go to absurd lengths to see and be seen, to demonstrate how caring, warm and matey they are.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal states that funerals are one of the rare occasions when the priest is permitted to leave the sanctuary for the sign of peace.

Sometimes there are exceptions, such as processions with the Eucharist. There is also the beginning and end of the funeral. If there is a person of note present, the celebrant can leave the sanctuary to give the sign of peace. These are exceptions to the general rule that the priest belongs in the sanctuary. Period.

The sanctuary is the place of the priest, symbolically and liturgically the head of the Body the Church gathered in the sacred space of the church. The head of the assembly has his place. The Body, assembled in the nave, have their particular place. The priest moves into the sanctuary, as into the holy of holies, the even more sacred space within the sacred space, as if into the bridal chamber. He should stay there for the whole sacred action.

Read on for more.

At my parish in Queens, we have a fairly large church, with an elaborately designed ambo, situated high above the congregation. (Fun piece of trivia: someone who preached from there in the past was Fulton Sheen — but that’s another story…) It’s not unusual for some priests to step down, and out of the sanctuary, and into the congregation, to pace and to preach. Most people find it unobtrusive. Some like it. (“Why don’t YOU do that?,” one cheerful elderly man asked me, not long after I was ordained.) I suppose it’s a matter of personal taste — for the preacher and for the people. I can see how this approach could enhance the liturgy, and give it immediacy and intimacy. But it can also easily turn into a kind of clerical showboating. 

There can be notable and sometimes powerful exceptions, of course.  I remember warmly the funeral of my wife’s grandmother.  The congregation was small, maybe 50 people.  The ambo was a good distance from the pews.  At the appropriate time, the priest stepped out of the sanctuary and read the gospel just in front of the first row, and then preached a wonderful, intimate homily from right there.    

Speaking for myself: I’ll do something like that for baptisms, with a handful of families gathered around the font.  But on any given Sunday, I prefer to stay up in the ambo, where everyone can see me, and it’s easy for them to maintain focus. It also makes it easier for me to refer to my text, and stay on track, and not get distracted or lose my train of thought.

And, from a liturgical point of view, I think, it makes sense.  It helps to keep the focus on the sanctuary, the holy of holies, where the great miracle and mystery of the Eucharist unfolds.

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